By Kim Komando
Gannett News Service
It's back-to-campus time. Instead of splurging on a new laptop or desktop computer, a handheld computer might fit the bill. These gadgets handle many common computing tasks in a smaller, less-expensive package.
When shopping for a handheld, also known as personal digital assistants (PDAs), narrow your focus by looking at three major points:
Operating systems. There are two major operating systems - Palm and Windows Mobile (formerly called Pocket PC).
Both operating systems are roughly equal in many ways, including ease of use, but two factors - data input and software - distinguish them.
To input data on the go (as opposed to syncing it from a desktop computer), both types of PDAs use a penlike stylus and software that recognizes handwriting. You enter names, addresses and notes in an area of the screen using the stylus, and it's converted to text automatically.
Palm devices use a handwriting recognition program called Graffiti 2. It takes a bit to learn.
Windows Mobile offers more versatility with three handwriting recognition programs. Block Recognizer is similar to the original Graffiti program - a difficult method for the uninitiated. Letter Recognizer is similar to Graffiti 2. Transcriber allows you to print characters or write in cursive letters, and it works surprisingly well.
Prices. Handhelds begin at $99 and approach $1,000. But the best deals begin at $300.
There are few models under $150. At this price, you'll get a machine that is good for organizing homework assignments and taking notes.
At $300, you'll find units with powerful processors, built-in wireless functionality and color screens. Built-in Wi-Fi is a plus on campuses where wireless networks are prevalent. It's a snap to use a wireless PDA to catch up on e-mail or look up information from the Internet between classes.
Some bells and whistles add value. Many models have built-in microphones that allow you to record lectures. Once recorded, you can transfer them to a PC in common sound formats for archiving. When it comes time to cram for finals, the whole semester will be at your fingertips.
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Handheld computer ideal for student